“What’s a trade show?” our (new) domestic partners complain whenever your COG team heads into town just as the snow, rock, water, weather’s finally perfect.
“We’re covering the Outdoor Retailer (ABA, SIA, MAGIC, ISPO, ASR, or InterBike) trade show. We’re writing articles about new gear.” Blank stares, if we’re lucky. Sideways glances (from our spouses), if we’re not.
So, let’s try this another way.
You’ve had a touch of the COG trade show feeling if you live in ski country. You remember, Warren Miller used to show up every fall, rent the local high school gymnasium and screen his latest ski film, often beginning with words to this effect: “when we eighteen and living on hot dogs in the Sun Valley parking lot we had only two problems: how to forge lift-tickets and how to find film for the old 16mm Bolex somebody’s father lent us.” Following this annual ski season kick-off, some local club or another might sponsor a “ski-swap.” Ski shop retailers would try to “cash in” on the preseason, cash-flow madness with “tent” sales or fairground events or a “booth” at the Warren Miller movie, mostly closing-out last years’ leftover inventory.
Now the energy around these pre- and post-movie gear-selling events approximates what goes on at “industry only” trade shows. Except: the trade shows we report on, you (gentle, general public) can’t get into…because gear makers and retailer shops want to keep you in suspense until next season. Economists tell us this has something to do with your “marginal propensity to consume.”
Your COG team will watch those sly gear makers and sellers so you don’t have to.
Let’s forget for a moment that some of us at an impressionable age took Warren Miller’s words (quoted precisely from 55-year-old memory) literally, disappointing countless employers, parents, girlfriends and graduate school advisers. But we learned how to work the gear and, happily as outdoor gear writers, how the gear works. For example, the exact proportion of torsional rigidity and lateral deflection along a ski’s shovel allows the thing to begin turning more or less easily in relation to loading and resistance. That’s what ski-types are trying to sense when they cruise ski racks, bending skis. Of course, you can’t do this (sense how a ski turns) in a shop….which is where your COG team comes in handy. We’re either in the field or on the road between adventures. When new gear shows up early, we’re there.
Now the coolest feature of trade show industry arrangement is geographic interest mapping. Now we know the map is not the territory. (A philosophic note here: see SI Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action for an interesting digression concerning…) Nevertheless, purposefully striding about a big city convention center among similarly impassioned folks attending to 12’ x 12’ sectional “vendor booths”: each competing for “buyers” representing the outdoor retailers that you buy you outdoor gear from. That is, the buyers cruise the show aisles while vendors (the guys who make you gear) vie with each other to get buyers (for REI, EMS and other retailers) into their booths to order next season’s gear (trades-speak: “write paper).
Since anyone can attend a local, consumer convention or hobby/sport show, however, we avoid these…because the “industry only” events give us first look at, and the earliest opportunity to influence or complain about, innovative gear.
No, it’s not merely an excuse to see friends and party, although the atmosphere’s often festive.
For your COG team it’s always been an excuse to see friends and party midseason and many miles off the grid. ABA, SIA, MAGIC, ISPO, ASR, InterBike: trade shows have fired our sporting fancy and sharpened our pencils since the early ‘80s. OK, ABA concerns the book trade and MAGIC clothing, but we’ve always keen for any chance to travel, see what’s new for next year and test a few clever gadgets. Anytime we see new gear, we’re there.
“Trade Show” is a collective phrase usually indicating a group of buyers and sellers convening for a common purpose. Sometimes the sellers also function as vendors or exhibitors. If buyers are normal public folks “off the street,” then you’d have a regularly scheduled, often seasonal, event at your local convention center. Home and garden shows and boat shows are a most generic, prosaic characteristic here. The objective is for local retailers, often home and garden stores and boat shops, to drive local immediate sales.
For our COG reporters, though, public affairs aren’t for us. Since we’re interested in the stuff you can’t find in stores until next year, we seek out “industry only” events: the bigger and more exclusive the better. As the guest list gets more rarified, the carnival/tribal atmosphere climbs. If you’re a manufacturer or product distributor, the retail shop owners trolling the show floor aisles are your market. Retailers find all the goods for stocking their stores along with the carnival of booths. While suppliers (of materials for manufacture, sale, and promotion) and special interest/advocacy groups find synergistic vibes amid the ebb and flow of the free market.
The twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer Show, a for-profit event run owned by Emerald Expositions, a publicly-traded company, has been the COG focus since …. well, since well before Outdoor Retailer existed. During the ‘70s the Ski Industries of America (SIA, now Snow Sports of America) staged an eponymous trade show in Las Vegas. This “ski only” event was largest in the world. The gigantic “all sport” ISPO trade show in Munich was (and continues as) world’s biggest sporting goods trade show. But SIA is unique in its close ski focus. Your COG reporters worked this show for a variety of employers. Mid-winter the trade met in Vegas since 1975 and for most of those years, it was a suit and tie, business affair. (The first ski industry trade show took place in New York in 1953. By the twentieth century’s end, almost a thousand exhibitors occupied half-million square feet of booth space.)
Except at the very far corner of the Hilton Hotel Convention Center, an intrepid buyer might find an annex, SIA’s Sports Expo. In this venue you’d find the backpacks, the specialty cross-country skis, the multi-tool knives, stoves, crampons, ice axes and men and women who didn’t want a ski lift ticket to serve their outdoor adventuring. This tiny Sports Expo offered most radical activity and innovation at SIA and that’s where your COG reporters hung out whenever released from their ski industry duties.
Those flamboyant SIA Vegas days are well documented since the SIA show abandoned Vegas for Denver. See especially outdoor and ski industry pioneering journalist Bob Woodward’s article in Skiing History Magazine and The Story of Modern Skiing by John Fry.
After outgrowing SIA, Outdoor Retailer moved to twice/year rotation in Reno. Outgrowing Reno, OR moved to Salt Lake City and is still going strong after 20 years. And here, every six months, COG finds retailers, manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, promoters, special interest groups, sports stars and hangers-on meeting for fun and profit.
The insight here: in case you want to know or care, every retailer wants/needs to make money to stay in business. You’ve seen our new economic (internet) landscape close down many, old-line, mom-and-pop specialty retail shops…the geeky ones that always seem to have the coolest, most innovative outdoor gear, clothing, and gadgets…our COG favorites. If a retailer can’t “do” the numbers, they can’t afford to buy quantities of product attractive to vendors. So the big vendors won’t “open up” or continue accounts for the marginal retailers. In a vicious-cycle, retail buyers can’t buy and vendors won’t sell.
Every retailer wants to sell Patagonia and North Face and the like. “Margins” are great with these well-established brands, they “sell” like crazy and retailers can make a living selling with these tried-and-true products. These big vendors dominate the prime real estate locations on the OR show floor.
New vendors, those often with the newest, most innovative products must wait-in-line for one of those prime showroom floor “booth spaces” to open up before they can move their product offerings, those cool gear pieces we all love, onto “Main Street” at OR. Those small retailers, if closed out from the big, well-established brands, often find themselves cruising the edges of the main floor trying to hunt down buying opportunities and lift, by force of innovation, their economic horizons.
And this is where we find the “little guys,” the product innovators with the cool gear that don’t yet have the “clout,” the numbers, the seniority to merit an address on OR’s Main Street. These new vendor locations are “The Ballroom” and “New Product Pavilion” of the Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace. You won’t find buyers from Nordstrom or Macys or the big “buying groups” here; they’re writing mega-orders on Main Street. But the new product areas are where you’ll find the little guys. And that’s always where the COG team starts looking for the good stuff.
Winter 2018, Outdoor Retailer moved its two trade-shows from Salt Lake City to Denver and re-connected with SIA trade show (winter). Political considerations prevailed. COG reserves judgment.